Eating could well feature as one of your most compelling reasons for visiting Bangladesh. With a plethora of global and local flavours ruling the roost across the country, your culinary adventure here is bound to leave you hungry for more.
Best Places to Eat
Fakruddin The unchallenged biryani king of Bangladesh is a must-try for anyone passing through Dhaka.
Holey Artisan Bakery This bistro has top-notch breads and oven-baked goodies at its lakeside Dhaka outlet.
Bonanza Food Plus Pan Asian cuisine comes together in all its magnificence at this upscale Chittagong eatery.
Mermaid Café This Cox's Bazar shack prides itself on fresh marine catches served in delicious heaps.
Panshi Restaurant This iconic restaurant serving local Bangladeshi food has Sylhet eating out of its hands.
Woondaal Revisit the popular flavours of London's Brick Lane at this fancy restaurant in Sylhet.
Bangladesh is well-stocked with eating options. Apart from top-end restaurants, reservations are usually not required (or even accepted for that matter). Conversely, at popular walk-in eateries, you may have to queue for a table during peak dining hours.
- Restaurants: From fine dining to proletarian curry houses, Bangladesh has a wide range of restaurants serving diverse local and global cuisines. Popular foreign flavours include Indian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, European and Mediterranean food.
- Cafes: In towns and big cities, fancy cafes serve tasty snacks and finger foods to accompany teas, coffees, juices and mocktails.
- Tea Stalls: You'll be hard-pressed to find a street in Bangladesh that doesn't have a tea stall attached to it. Many of these stalls also double as cheap breakfast options for the masses.
Drawing on centuries of cooking traditions inspired by Islamic, Hindu and tribal cultures, Bangladesh's kitchens churn out a diverse range of mouth-watering dishes, most of which are made from indigenous local produce. Bengalis (both in Bangladesh and India’s West Bengal) consider their food to be the most refined in the subcontinent, and while this causes considerable debate in culinary circles, everyone is in agreement that Bengali sweets truly are the finest you can dip your sticky fingers into.
Within the country, the divisions of Sylhet and Khulna are known to make the best food. Many Bangladeshi chefs and cooks earning their keep running popular restaurants in the UK originally hail from Sylhet. In Khulna, a number of gravies are enriched by the addition of chui (piper chaba), a creeper plant that lends a delicious peppery aftertaste, which seasoned foodies thoroughly swear by.
As for beverages, Bangladesh is a heavy consumer of tea. At proletarian stalls, milk tea usually means black tea coloured and sweetened with condensed milk from a can. These days, with discerning tea drinkers steadily growing in number, many cafes in Dhaka, Chittagong and tea growing areas such as Sylhet and Srimangal will serve you more refined brews, not very different from teas you'd buy off a supermarket shelf back home.
The food of Bangladesh has much in common with the food of neighbouring India, with a noticeable leaning towards fish. Rice and dhal are the mainstays, served with a variety of fish, vegetable and meat dishes, often flavoured with chilli, masala spice mixes and mustard oil. Biryani (pot-steamed rice with spices and chicken) is a popular lunch in Muslim areas; in Buddhist areas in the southeast, food has a notable Burmese influence, with the use of bamboo shoots, coconut and shrimp paste.
Within the country, the divisions of Sylhet and Khulna are known to make the best food. Many Bangladeshi chefs and cooks earning their keep running popular restaurants in the UK originally hail from Sylhet. In Khulna, gravies are enriched by the addition of chui (piper chaba), a creeper plant that lends a delicious peppery aftertaste, which seasoned foodies swear by.
A typical Bangladeshi meal includes an assortment of bhorta (mash) and bhaji (fried vegetables) preparations, dhal (yellow lentil soup), and a few curries made with vegetables (shobji), beef, mutton, chicken, fish or egg. The bhorta and bhaji dishes can potentially incorporate everything from seasonal vegetables to dried fish or shrimps, tempered with diverse spices and condiments. Almost everything is cooked in a mustard-oil base, which lends its signature sharpness to go with fiery gravies. Rice (the chief local produce) is considered a higher-status food than bread.
Many curry menus in Bangladesh refer to bhuna (or bhoona), which is the delicious process of stage-cooking meat or fish in spices and hot oil reduced to a dense gravy. A timeless local favourite is the bhuna khichuri, which comprises rice, yellow lentils and occasionally chunks of meat slow-cooked together in the same spicy base. Another common non-vegetarian curry is dopiaza (literally ‘double onions’), which as the name suggests, contains large amounts of onion added to the curry in two separate stages.
The four main forms of rice dishes that you’re likely to encounter are biryani, pulao or polao (similar to biryani but without the meat), bhuna khichuri and bhat (plain rice). The biryani is almost always of the kachchi variety, where the meat and the rice are slow-cooked together from start to finish in the same cauldron. Bangladesh is home to several strains of aromatic rice grains, which are widely used and lend distinct flavours to all these items.
Fish is every Bangladeshi’s favourite meal. The fish you are most likely to eat – curried, smoked or fried – are ilish (hilsa) and bhetki (sea bass). These are virtually the national dishes of Bangladesh, and it’s said they can both be prepared in around 30 different ways. If you have a more adventurous palate, there are numerous shrimp, lobster, pomfret (locally called rupchanda), crab, eel and sardine dishes that you can gorge on throughout your stay.
Kebabs in Bangladesh are similar to their Indian counterparts and are widely available across the country. They come in many delicious avatars, including the flat, patty-like shami kebab, made with fried minced meat, and the long, skewered sheekh kebab, which is prepared with less spice and usually with mutton or beef. You’ll also find tandoori chicken grilled on spit rods. Chicken tikka is also common, and is usually served with Indian-style naan (slightly puffed wholewheat bread cooked in a tandoori oven).
The standard pan-Bangladeshi breakfast usually comprises shobji and dhal with a few roti (flat bread), sometimes eaten with a spicy omelette or fried egg, and nearly always washed down with a cup of cha (tea). It’s fresh, filling and delicious. Meat-lovers often ask for a side-order of the subtle nihari (beef trotter stew), which makes a great dip for the roti.
Utterly fond of desserts and sweetmeats, Bangladeshis make and consume all kinds of sticky delights. Popular sweet treats include mishti doi (sweetened yoghurt), rosh malai (miniature fried cottage cheese balls dipped in a creamy base), chom chom (a syrup-coated cake made from paneer) and monda (a sweetened yoghurt cake).
Vegetarians & Vegans
Finding purely vegetarian dishes can be quite challenging in Bangladesh. The key phrase to learn here is ‘ami mangsho khai na’ (I don’t eat meat), followed closely by ‘ami maach khai na’ (I don’t eat fish). While Bengali cuisine makes abundant use of vegetables, getting restaurants to grasp the fact that you really do only survive on them can be tough.
In suburban and rural Bangladesh, your best option is to ask for rice and dhal with a few servings of vegetable bhaji, bhorta and shobji. You'll also find a good range of freshly baked flat breads – naan and roti being the most common. Eggs, often in the form of delicious spicy omelettes, are also widely available. A recent explosion of Chinese restaurants has introduced other vegetarian options, such as noodles and paneer in sauce.
Your on-the-road saviour will be Bangladesh’s wonderful array of fresh fruit. Oranges, apples and bananas are everywhere, while the mango orchards in western Rajshahi grow some of the world’s best mangoes. Mango season is May to June.
In metropolitan Dhaka, however, your choice of restaurants with good vegetarian food will be pretty decent. Don’t forget to try the Western-style cafes as well.
Officially a teetotalling nation, Bangladesh quenches its thirst with a variety of juices, traditional beverages and soft drinks. While cha (tea) is the nation's favourite beverage, other popular drinks include sugar-cane juice, local and imported soft drinks, and yoghurt-based burhani and labaan (both similar to buttermilk, but with a spicy and sweet aftertaste respectively).
Feature: Habits & Customs
Traditionally, Bengali meals were served on the floor and eaten with fingers rather than cutlery. Each person sat on a pati (a small piece of straw carpet). In front of the pati was a large eating platter or banana leaf, around which bowls would be placed. These days, however, it's mostly a table-and-chair affair, with food served in metal or plastic plates and containers.
Eating with one's fingers, however, still remains de rigueur. For the uninitiated, it’s a strangely liberating experience and we recommend you try it. Bangladeshis say that it allows for an appreciation of textures before the morsels are enjoyed by the tongue.
Dos & Don’ts
- It is courteous to use only the right hand to eat. The left hand is considered unclean, given its use in the bathroom for ablutions. However, considering that the fingers of your right hand will be coated in gravy while you eat, you should use the left hand to pass things around the table.
- You may break bread with both hands, but never put food into your mouth with the left.
- Water may be drunk from a glass with the left hand because it is not being directly touched.
- Always wash your hands before you eat – for the sake of courtesy as well as hygiene.
As in India, cha (tea) is sold on practically every street corner in Bangladesh. Unlike in India, though, each cup is made individually (rather than stewing all day), which means you can order it without sugar (chini sara) or without milk (lal cha; literally ‘red tea’).
Sidebar: The Book of Indian Sweets
The Book of Indian Sweets, by Satarupa Banerjee, is a godsend for those who may develop a craving for roshogollas (fried cottage cheese balls dipped in sugar syrup) and other teeth-rotting Bengali treats during their trip.